Available exclusively on the Disney+ streaming platform, “Luca” is middle-drawer Pixar, a dreamily animated bit of whimsy with a great setting, not much of a story, and a concept that’s a rehash. Instead of monsters hiding in the dimension beyond a little girl’s bedroom, Enrico Casarosa’s film posits monsters under the sea — aqua-blue, kelp-green, and quahog-purple beasties that look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon crossed with Barney the Dinosaur. When they come out on dry land, they magically transform into humans, legs and all, but any drop of water brings back the scales and the fins.
That accounts for the most amusing slapstick in “Luca,” as the title character, a young undersea shepherd boy yearning to explore the upper world, dodges raindrops and water fountains in an effort to keep his identity secret from the humans of the fishing village in which he has come ashore. The villagers carry big, sharp harpoons, and they won’t hesitate to use them on the nightmarish mermen of their legends. But Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, the kid from “Room”) and his daredevil new friend Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) are so drawn to the human world that they’ll risk the occasional spritz.
A longstanding member of the Pixar brain trust, Casarosa is best-known for his short “La Luna,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 and which has a similar air of fractured fairy tale. A similar setting, too: “Luca” takes place on the Italian Riviera in a fondly remembered and beautifully rendered 1950s neverland. It’s the Italy of Cinzano posters and Marcello Mastroianni (a photo of whom is glimpsed as a kind of talisman at one point), of Fellini movies (“I Vitelloni” especially) and Nino Rota scores and, above all, of Vespa scooters, one of which becomes the object of the two young fish-friends’ shared dreams of escape. And who can blame them?
To win the money to buy a Vespa, Luca and Alberto enter the town’s annual triathlon, which consists of a cycling leg, a swimming leg, and a giant plate of pasta. Helping them with the swimming part is Giulia (Emma Berman), a feisty young village girl with whom Luca forms a strong bond of friendship. So there’s jealousy from the insecure Alberto and a rivalry with Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), an egotistical village braggart with a posse of toadies and a vainglorious tutsi-fruitsi accent. (He’s like Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast” strained through Chico Marx.) Adding to the complications, Luca’s parents, the over-protective Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and doofus dad Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) have come ashore to find their son and are splashing water on every kid in town.
“Luca” has energy to spare and it’s certainly easy on the eyes, if not as visually outrageous as, say, the recent “Coco.” The moral lessons — be true to your friends, overcome your fears — are tidy and shopworn, fresh to young audiences but lacking the jolts of originality that make classic Pixar films an all-ages proposition. Taken with last year’s inferior “Onward” and far superior “Soul,” it’s evidence that the company that gave us “Toy Story” and “Monsters Inc.,” “WALL-E” and “Up,” is settling comfortably into the formulas it reinvented. That’s disappointing only if you expect the highest quality from what we like to pass off as “family entertainment.” But it’s worth remembering it was Pixar that taught us to expect that quality in the first place.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa. Written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones. With the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph. Available on Disney+. 95 minutes. PG (rude humor, language, some thematic elements, brief violence).